Leading medical journals and health professionals have joined forces to raise awareness about the major public health benefits which could be unlocked by tackling air pollution and climate change.

Healthcare professionals: A new voice in the climate change debate

When we talk about climate change, images of melting ice caps, polar bears and hotter weather are often the first ones that come to mind. Yet, to many people, it is far from obvious how climate change is related to health. This is what the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) wants to change.

Bringing together well-respected health professional bodies such as the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGPs) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), along with two major UK medical journals, the Alliance exists to ensure that national policies address the health threat posed by climate change. More importantly, the Alliance aims to raise awareness about the substantial health benefits that can be reaped from tackling climate change.

Physicians work on the frontlines of healthcare. Now they want to be at the forefront of the debates on climate change and air pollution

Thanks to a rapidly expanding body of evidence during the past few decades, we now know all too well that air pollution has wide-ranging and life-long health impacts. The effects of air pollution have been linked to myriad cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, including asthma, stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. Health professionals witness the insidious effects of this silent threat in their everyday practice. They also observe, with great concern, that the most vulnerable groups, namely children and the elderly, are the most affected by the continuing exposure to high – and illegal - levels of toxic air pollutants.

Future generations’ health is being compromised by air pollution

Ambient air pollution has devastating effects at about every stage of life but it is particularly detrimental to children’s health. Children are more sensitive to ground level ozone than adults, even children without asthma, as they breathe more per unit body weight and their immature and developing lungs are more susceptible to damage. In particular, gestation, infancy and early childhood are vulnerable periods as the body grows and develops. Recent studies have found clear links between air pollution and preterm birth, infant mortality, deficits in lung growth, and possibly, development of asthma . Every year air pollution kills 3.7 million people worldwide and 3 per cent (127,000) of these deaths are children under the age of 5 . As temperatures increase, children will pay the high price of inadequate responses to the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, and their lives and futures will be the most disrupted.

‘A Breath of Fresh Air’: health professionals’ call for stronger and bolder action to tackle air pollution

On 18 October, the Alliance published its first report, 'A Breath of Fresh Air'. The report sets out a series of recommendations that, if adopted, would help the UK to realise the health benefits of tackling the twin threats of air pollution and climate change. The report builds on the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report, 'Every Breath We Take', which attributed 40000 premature deaths per year to outdoor air pollution.

Six strategies to tackle air pollution and deliver health benefits

The Alliance has recommended six key steps that the Government and the health sector must take to clean up our air and tackle climate change.

  1. Increase cross-departmental cooperation: At present, several government Departments oversee and address different aspects of air pollution, from DfT’s responsibility on vehicle emissions to Defra’s role in defining air pollution targets. It is critical to promote a more joined-up approach where the co-benefits of tackling air pollution and climate change are well-reflected in all Departments’ decisions.
  2. Phasing-out coal by 2025: Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel and is linked to 1,600 premature deaths each year. Ending coal use is an effective way to improve public health rapidly whilst also reducing the risks of climate change.
  3. Implement robust Clean Air Zones: Many UK cities exceed the limit on air pollution while transport contributes significantly to our air quality problem. Implementing Clean Air Zones in our cities will help reduce air pollution and encourage active transport such as cycling and walking.
  4. Better monitor air pollution: Air pollution is a driver of health inequality with the most vulnerable population groups, including children, suffering the most from its consequences. The Alliance is calling for greater monitoring of air pollution around schools and hospitals, and for improved communication of the health risks associated with air pollution.
  5. Retain current environmental standards: Many existing air quality standards in the UK are derived from EU law and it is vital to ensure that future Government policies keep existing targets in place.
  6. Better inform health professionals to take local action and provide advice for patients: Physicians have a pivotal role in educating patients and advocating for targeted local interventions to tackle air pollution.
    The Alliance will make doctors, nurses and allied health professionals’ voices stronger, by proactively sharing our key demands with policy-makers, and will engage with health professionals to ensure that they are effectively informed about the interrelationship between climate change and the health of their patients. Health professionals have a crucial role in ensuring a healthier planet and population and the Alliance will act as a synergistic force to release this untapped potential.

Key findings from the report are summarised in this infographic.
Browse the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change website for more information.

1 Ambient air pollution: health hazards to children, Kim, JJ. and American Academy of Paediatrics Committee on Environmental Health, Pediatrics, 2004

2 Unless we act now – The impact of climate change on children, UNICEF, November 2015

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